In an unusual move, US Justice Department secretly obtained two months' of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press, an action termed by the global news wire as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how it gathers the news.
The Justice Department obtained secret records as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed Al Qaeda plot last year.
The Associated Press, which is headquartered in New York, alleged the Justice Department obtained two months phone records -- mostly outgoing -- of its several offices in particular those in New York and Washington, and several of its reporters and editors.
In a statement, The Associated Press said the Department of Justice notified it on May 10 that it had secretly obtained telephone records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP journalists and offices, including cell and home phone lines.
"AP is asking the DOJ for an immediate explanation of the extraordinary action and for the records to be returned to AP and all copies destroyed," it said.
The news agency termed it as a serious interference with its constitutional rights to gather and report the news. It called the Justice Department's actions a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into newsgathering activities.
Protesting such a move by the Justice Department, The Associated Press Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt alleged that the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation.
Demanding the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies, Pruitt in his letter to Attorney General Eric Holder said there can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters.
"These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP's newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know," Pruitt said.
According to The Associated Press, the several government officials had in the past have said that they were investigating as to who provided information in a May 7, 2012 AP story about the foiled terror plot.
The news first released by the Associated Press itself immediately drew widespread criticism.
The White House immediately tried to distance itself from the alleged probe by the Department of Justice.
"Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
"We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department," he added.
US lawmakers expressed concern over targeting of journalists.
Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed concern over the news reports.
"The burden is always on the government when they go after private information -- especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources," he said.
"I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation," Leahy said.
"I remain concerned about the First Amendment and the targeting of journalists.
Whether the administration is targeting conservatives, patriots, Tea Party groups, Jewish groups or now journalists, the enemies list seems to grow as does the potential abuse of power," Congressman Paul Gosar, said.=
"I call upon the Attorney General to refresh his memory of the US Constitution. If he cannot find one, I am happy to personally hand deliver one to him," Gosar said.
Image: A man looks down at his smartphone as he walks past the offices of the Associated Press in Manhattan, New York
Photograph: Adrees Latif/Reuters